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[Editorial] Shameless chief justice

Private dinner held for corporate legal team at official residence after trial

Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su has often deviated from the ethical norms governing public service.

In early 2018, a dinner was reportedly held at his official residence for his daughter-in-law and her colleagues on a Hanjin Group affiliate’s legal team.

The dinner, cooked by the residence’s exclusive chef and served with wine, is said to have taken place in the official banquet hall.

Its dubious timing attracted attention.

On Dec. 21, 2017, the Supreme Court found Cho Hyun-ah, who resigned as vice president of Korean Air after the “nut rage incident,” not guilty of changing the aircraft’s route -- the central charge she faced in connection with the incident -- and upheld her suspended 10-month sentence for other offenses.

Considering that Korean Air is affiliated with the group which his daughter-in-law worked as part of a legal team, Kim should have recused himself from the case, but he didn’t. The dinner took place after the trial.

Later, Hanjin Group’s chairman and his wife, Cho’s parents, respectively stood trial on charges of tax evasion and assaulting their chauffeur.

Kim’s wife was said to have attended the dinner too. It is unknown whether Kim participated, but common sense suggests he must have known about it.

Kim cannot avoid criticism that he used the official residence for private purposes. The dinner also put the fairness of the trial in question. A person with a normal sense of ethics would know this. If a judge has dinner with a person involved in a case that he is trying, how would Kim reply?

In September 2017, when he was chief judge of the Chuncheon District Court, Kim was nominated as the Supreme Court chief justice. A day after his nomination, he traveled to the Supreme Court in Seoul from Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, on buses and the subway.

He said he had not used an official vehicle because his visit was personal. But before long, his mask of hypocrisy began to slip off. After taking office as chief justice, he began to renovate the official residence.

Kim reportedly ordered the construction of a playground in the official residence so his grandchildren could play when they visited on weekends.

He let his son and daughter-in-law live with him in the renovated official residence for about a year and three months, until their new apartment in Seoul’s expensive Gangnam area was ready.

It looks unscrupulous for a chief justice to live with his married son in the official residence under the circumstances. It costs about 200 million won ($178,800) a year to maintain the official residence. His son, a judge, and his daughter-in-law, a lawyer employed by a large company, lived there for free, apparently to save funds to pay for the apartment. The market price of their apartment is estimated to surpass the acquisition cost by about 2 billion won.

Public servants have to keep their private and public lives separate -- that is part of the ABCs of ethics in public service. The chief justice, who stands at the pinnacle of the judiciary, is expected to lead by example. But Kim disregards even the basics of professional ethics.

Kim broke with the principles of fairness in personnel management by filling key posts with judges who belonged to a private internal group that he once headed. For certain judges, he did not follow the long-standing practice of rotating them every three years -- so they can either dawdle on cases involving those in power or deliver favorable rulings.

Kim kept silent whenever he faced uncomfortable controversy. In February, he was revealed to have lied about a conversation he had with Lim Seong-geun, then a senior judge on the Busan High Court, in which Lim offered to resign before being impeached. He kept silent about that offer to resign, blaming “blurry memories.”

He remains silent on the Hanjin dinner, too.

This person has become the chief justice. No matter how absurd it is, he clings to the post shamelessly.